What good is nostalgia?

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There are at least a couple people in my life who've recently brought up the topic of nostalgia. It's not just thinking about or idealizing the past though, it's this recognition that there is something they're longing for that isn't present in their lives anymore. 

I feel it too. Sometimes I don't realize it until something twigs this buried memory of a feeling I rarely tap into anymore.

Sometimes you feel it in crowds, at a festival or a concert. Sometimes you feel it out in nature with people who are special to you. Or on a road trip driving late into the evening with the music blasting. Or your first time in a new city at sunset... Part of why going to tech conferences was such an amazing time was spending time with friends from all over in a grown up "summer camp" like situation. Condensed hangouts separated from day-to-day life. I made some of my best post-university friends that way, but they are scattered around the globe.

Music still does it to me. Not even old music, just certain music - the kind I want to turn up REALLY LOUD even though my nervous system doesn't like loud music (or crowded places) anymore. Like this.

Or this. It's designed to embody the feeling I'm talking about.

I was never much one for staying out all night doing drugs and riding without a helmet... I didn't really rebel until I was about 32. But there's something that this video still brings up for me. So then what is it? What is it that we're longing for?

The easy answer is youth - carefree times. Maybe that's part of it. For me, maybe it's a time where I was somewhat healthier (relative terms) and was able to be more adventurous. But it's not just that. I've been trying to figure it out, and I am far from having all the answers. But I want to figure it out, because maybe then I can find some ways to nurture that feeling in my present day life.

Here are a few of the things I've come up with - things I think feed that feeling:

  1. Physical presence of people I'm really comfortable with.
  2. Unstructured time.
  3. Spontaneous social gatherings.
  4. Shared experiences.
  5. Specific kinds of music.
  6. Lengthy hangouts.

Pride Parade

I'm sure there are more, maybe I'll come back and add to the list. Some of these aren't very accessible to me anymore - lengthy hangouts, and spontaneity are particularly challenging. I have to do "boring" things aka. self care, like prepare and bring food, keep myself from getting too hot or cold, and not exert myself too much.

Also, most of the people I have that ultimate level of comfort with don't live here - something I'm learning to be okay with and appreciate for what it is. There are a (very) few people locally who I can spend extended time with without it exhausting me. Those are the people I don't need to be "on" with, who can just hang out and just be. I cherish those people!

But it's hard to build those kinds of friendships, because developing close relationships requires things like spending lots of time together (which I can't do a ton of), being reliable (which I often can't be), and doing or going (to) things with rather than just "hanging out" (which was the norm back when I was younger). "Hanging out" really seems to be a lost art. And part of what makes hanging out work is having several people who also all feel comfortable with each other (as in a larger group or extended circle of friends who all know each other at least somewhat), and who are in close enough physical proximity to gather regularly.

I'm working on it, but it's really. Fucking. Slow. And it's complicated by having lived in this city for nearly half of my life now. I wish that made it easier, I know in theory it "should", but sometimes you bring the wrong people into your life, and well... History piles up. There are ghosts of my past lives all over the place, and while I've finally made peace with them for the most part, but they don't make my social world easy.

So then how do I make this magic happen? How do I cultivate these heartbreakingly awesome times that make me feel alive and like everything is exactly as it should be?

Well, I've been starting to make a renewed effort socially. I really stopped that for a long chunk of time. It's unclear at this point whether my health is ever going to get better - as much as I hope it does, I realized I'd better start figuring out how to make my life the best I can exactly as I am right now. Acceptance, acceptance, acceptance. So I'm trying to get out a little bit more - even if that means making it to about 1/3 of things I "commit" to doing. And it means organizing more get togethers - even if few of my friends know each other, everyone is constantly "so busy", and my energy levels are are like a lottery scratch card.

Mother Mother at Jazz Fest

I've always been an organizer, bringing people together - I think that's part of why my social life fell apart when I wasn't able to keep doing that. For a while I resented it, but I'm realizing now that it's not that nobody wants to do stuff or keep in touch, it's just that the person who made it happen (me) stopped making it happen, and nobody jumped in to fill the role. Busy city life means people are preoccupied, it is what it is.

I'm trying to get more comfortable with organizing get togethers where I might not actually be able to participate fully come the day of. I'm trying to get more comfortable not being able to participate fully in life in general. It feels weird as someone who used to do it all despite my limitations (but that's clearly part of what got me into this mess).

And finally, I'm trying to reconnect with things that bring me back to my core self. Indie music, My So-Called Life, Singles, Reality Bites, back issues of BUST magazine... I like who I was before I got lost. And I like who I am now. I want to bring a little bit more of who I was then into my now.

I don't have a pretty or concise answer to end this with, so I hope you'll share your thoughts about nostalgia below if you're feeling it, or the longing for something you've somehow lost. And I'd love to hear about how you might try and bring some of it back into your life.


This is an interesting topic that got me thinking. Do I get nostalgic? Generalized nostalgia is a pet peeve of mine, people saying that long ago days were better (kids were more polite, people had better grammar, etc) when they really weren't. But I also understand what you're saying here. Having just moved, my life felt empty and lonely. I longed for the life I'd had before. What you did is important: make a list, think about how to get those things back into your life again. Now that I'm making friends, exercising, and have a routine going, I'm loving the present and less nostalgic (more just thankful) about the future. Nostalgia by itself wasn't helpful since it kept me looking at the past instead of thinking what I could do about the present.

Yay for being bold and commenting! :)

I too HATE generalized nostalgia. I don't long for highschool in the slightest. Nor really for university, though there were some good qualities about that time in my life for sure. I don't think those times were better, but I do think they had more of certain things that I want in my life.

I think I always end up coming back to this same sticky point, which is that I don't know how to create certain things (like routine, or like making more/stronger friendships) within the parameters of my current life. Routine is nearly impossible, but I've done my best to make the most of my better days, so that's sort of working for me (in a making the most of a less than ideal situation sort of way). 

Friendhips and socializing is probably the biggest challenge for me to figure out. It's incredibly EASY to meet new people even not going out much. But what is difficult (and sometimes feels impossible) is turning those acquaintances or medium friendships into awesome real-deal friendships. That used to happen via work and via me going out to many networking events, going to and organizing conferences, etc. Those just aren't accessible to me anymore - and they seem like what people in this city want to do.

People seem much less interested in group activities that I personally find really fun, but are more low key... I used to organize so many things, but find now that most people don't even respond to invites I send out (I don't think it's personal, but that people don't take invites the way they used to since we're all bombarded with them online). At least, I am still holding out hope it's not me! Everyone just seems so busy and has their own thing going on... It's pretty discouraging, but I don't want to give up!


I have to admit that I don't experience that much nostalgia about my past. My childhood was difficult and painful; teen years sucked until age 16; twenties were royally messed up and angst-filled; thirties were spent as a quasi-hermit when not at work. So because of that, the good memories I have are there, but they don't really have a huge grip on my life. I focus on appreciating (I mean deeply appreciating) the "now" moments, that coalesce at any given, random time. The experience is both joyous and mildly painful, knowing it will end.
A particular rich piece of music, the quality of sunlight as it strikes leaves on a tree, driving my truck, singing with the stereo blaring, beautiful reflections on a tabletop, exquisite smells, seeing someone I care about...
I think that nostalgia happens when one fails to acknowledge beautiful moments as they happen every day and when one focuses more on the past instead, which doesn't really exist, except in one's own mind. Time has a way of continuing to crawl inexorably forward, wherever that may be. So hanging on to something that may or may not have happened exactly as remembered, tinted with one's own personal filters, makes little sense.
Don't get me wrong: it's not always possible to exist in a place of blissful zen-ness all of the time...not even most of the time, in fact. However, it is possible to make it a point and a habit, to stop and focus on something that makes one lose track of time for just a brief moment. I do think that the cumulative effect of these little bubbles of awareness make it easier to avoid slipping into musings of the past and to focus on what's happening now. I feel that one has the ability to create a pocket of peace and contentment; even enhance day to day existence with a little more awareness of and gratefulness for what's around oneself. I found that it helps keep depression a bit more at bay.
I honestly don't seek out large groups of people; I find that they often bore me. Too much small talk to my tastes. I would rather sit and talk about really personal or intense stuff or just sit quietly with one or two people I care about. Maybe that's just me.

So, like I was saying... It's not actually nostalgia for the past or wanting to go back or relive the past at all - I have no desire to go back in time.

It's nostalgia for a *feeling* - which is why I was picking out certain elements that I find contribute to that feeling. These elements are ones that are (theoretically) accessible to present day me, and not at all things that can't be "gone back" to.

It strikes me as binary thinking to pit what I'm labelling "nostalgia" here against gratitude or presence. I don't think they are separate or contrary at all. Having a desire to have more of certain feelings I've experienced in the past doesn't preclue my ability to appreciate moments or have gratitude for what positive things are in my present day life.

And as far as groups of people - I don't know if I implied I wanted to socialize in large groups more, but that isn't the case. They can be fine, but I too enjoy more intimate/smaller social gatherings. Alas, many if not most of the people I would be most comfortable and keen to gather with are friends made during travels and conferences, and live nowhere near us...

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